About an hour into Little Nightmares II, I found a toy duck resting on a hardwood floor. It was the kind of carved, wooden plaything that kids drag around on a piece of twine, with wheels where the real waterfowl's webbed feet would be. A dim spotlight from somewhere above shone on its reflective wings. Behind it, there was an oaky barrier, formed from leaning one table against another--too tall for my character, a tiny child named Mono, to climb. When I approached, the floorboard the duck was sitting on sunk into the floor. I turned to run just as a metal light fixture swung down from the ceiling, smashing me into the barrier and killing me.
Once the checkpoint reset, I tried again, attempting to quickly run away from the floorboard before the pendulum fell. No dice. Again, it smashed me against the wall.
"I wonder if I can..." I thought, eyeing the nearby toy, "...duck."
When I respawned, I set the pressure plate off again and crouched down. Sure enough, the light fixture whooshed over my head, hit the barrier, and came to a halt. I climbed onto the light, and used the impromptu step stool to hop the barrier, marveling at the way developer Tarsier Studios had cleverly used a colorful environmental detail as a hint for a puzzle--a joke where a sigh of relief greeted the punchline instead of laughter.
Lasting relief, however, is nowhere to be found on Mono's journey. From the moment we first meet Mono, alone in the woods, he is vulnerable. His horrifying adventure takes him out of the woods and through a frightening cityscape haunted by humans who have turned into frightening parodies of mundane occupations, like a teacher whose watchful eyes dart at the end of a long, distended neck. Though Little Nightmares 2 tells its story wordlessly, we can easily intuit Mono's goal: escape. Tarsier's imaginatively brooding art helps to sell this story. As the player, you may want to play in this world, but Mono's clear motivation is to find a painless route to safety.
Many of Little Nightmares II's best moments are structured like jokes: tense build-up released by a climactic surprise. For example, with there being no weapons in the first game, I was shocked when, during the first chapter, the solution for dealing with a vicious pursuer was to pick up a shotgun with my AI companion, Six, and shoot our stalker dead. There are other moments like this, where Tarsier takes what you thought you knew and suddenly upends it, leaving you shocked and sputtering. These moments are especially effective if you've played the previous game. But, regardless of your past experience with the series, there is a catharsis inherent in these rare moments when our fragile characters finally get a chance to fight back.
Since the release of the first entry in 2017, the Little Nightmares series has combined the dark and the playful, casting players as little kids in a world of big and powerful monsters. Levels are presented as dioramas. If you move the camera far enough to the left or right, up or down, you can see the black space where the room ends. Walk close enough to the camera and your character will hit an invisible fourth wall. The overall effect is such that you simultaneously feel like a kid--maybe a sadistic one like Sid from Toy Story, but a kid nonetheless--playing with toys in their toybox and like the toys themselves.
Stellar art direction helps sell this. The settings that you jump and climb through have a moody sense of crumbling realism. I particularly enjoyed a platforming section that had me evading a monster by climbing across sprawling bookshelves in a library that, from my tiny perspective, seemed impossibly big. The rain and lighting effects set the tone for the world, one that leaves you feeling vulnerable. While the environmental art aims for realism, the enemy designs are grotesquely cartoonish. In Little Nightmares II, you will be alternately hunted by all kinds of monsters, from a larva-shaped man who clings to the ceiling and chows down on dead bodies to a monstrous schoolmarm with sharp teeth and a veiny neck that can stretch almost endlessly in pursuit of prey. These characters are unsettling in a way reminiscent of the darker Jim Henson works like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, and the visual similarity to puppetry helps sell the dark fantasy that you are a child in a frightening, violent world.
Tarsier uses this unsettling art design to terrific effect. In one of my favorite moments in the game, you don a disguise and sneak through a room filled with dozens of enemies--the most you've seen at once at this point in the game. There's a sense of mounting dread to that scene, as your ruse could fall apart at any second, forcing you to have to outrun a terrifying number of enemies. Little Nightmares II has several moments that tap into a similar dread, effectively building and sustaining an indelibly dark mood that lasts for most of the game.
But mood alone isn't enough to keep a game interesting for long, and Little Nightmares II fittingly has some great puzzles. Your verbs are fairly limited most of the time--you can run, jump, climb, and both pick up and pull objects. But Tarsier combines those actions with clever worldbuilding to make some truly memorable headscratchers. A personal favorite involved using an X-ray machine to reveal a key within a stuffed animal and then using an incinerator in the nearby morgue to access the hidden object. This puzzle was both a joy to solve and successfully communicated the history of how this building was used before the world became what it is. Little Nightmares II has plenty of inventive puzzles beyond that, and Tarsier's secret weapon is its thoughtfulness in linking its puzzles to the history of Little Nightmares 2's richly imagined world.
The addition of weapons results in some memorable sequences (like the aforementioned shotgun-toting confrontation), but it also pushes Little Nightmares II into frustrating territory. Sometimes your character, Mono, will find an axe or sledgehammer on the ground that's necessary for solving a puzzle or defeating an enemy in your way, but, being a tiny child, he can only drag it along the floor. The scrape of the blade on concrete is pitch-perfect, and the sensation of shifting the weapon's weight to bring it down on an opponent or obstacle feels satisfyingly hefty. But there are a few occasions where you're expected to take out multiple enemies in a row without getting hit, and these encounters are more frustrating than fun because of how slow Mono wields weapons. The window for landing a hit is brief, and even though certain enemies take more than one hit to go down, you will always die in a single hit, so you sometimes have to perfectly time several hits in a row or you'll be sent back to a checkpoint. These moments are irritating hang-ups in your progress that otherwise, by and large, feels pretty smooth.
There is one specific roadblock that's not so easily overcome. During a puzzle sequence near the end of the game, you must find the correct sequence of doors by listening for an audio cue that gets louder as you approach the right door. In addition to being nigh unsolvable for players who are deaf or hard-of-hearing--barring a series of lucky guesses--this puzzle is a tedious and unsuccessful subversion of the formula Tarsier has followed for the rest of the game. In the several hours leading up to this, Little Nightmares 2 teaches you that if you study the environment closely enough, you can solve any puzzle it presents. That's not the case here, and the result is a section of gameplay that is both uninteresting and inaccessible. The music was crucial for me in solving the puzzle, and more obvious visual cues or closed-captions would be necessary to make this portion of the game playable for everyone.
That puzzle's placement in the game hammered home for me that Little Nightmares II was stretching on for a bit too long. After one climactic encounter, which felt like it should herald the end of the game, my play experience dragged on for another hour, including that tedious puzzle and a frustrating final boss fight. This concluding section of the game just goes on for too long, and none of the mechanical ideas introduced in the last chapter are interesting enough to warrant the added length.
Little Nightmares II is a delightfully spooky foray into a horrifyingly gorgeous world. It's also a bit too long, occasionally frustrating and, in one key moment, inaccessible for players who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. But, overall, it represents a successful follow-up from Tarsier. With inventive puzzle design and some startlingly original levels, it isn't quite a dream come true, but it certainly won't have you waking up, bolt upright, screaming, in a cold sweat.